Brow Beat

Fresh off the Boat Nailed Its Depiction of What the Reverse Pilgrimage to Asia Is Like as an Asian American

Pop culture is not generallly good at depicting what it’s like for young Asian Americans to be introduced to their parents’ old life in Asia. But this episode was different.

ABC

In the Season 3 premiere of Fresh Off the Boat, titled “Coming from America,” the Huang family, anchored by Louis (Randall Park) and Jessica (Constance Wu), travels to Taiwan to attend the wedding of Louis’ brother, Gene (a guest appearance by Ken Jeong). It’s the boys’ first time in the country, and much of the episode is about their introduction to their parents’ old life in Taipei. It also happens to be the most realistic pop cultural depiction of that particular trip—the return to Asia—that we’ve seen in a very long time.

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As someone who’s made this exact reverse pilgrimage with my parents, I found many of the details included in the episode to be surprisingly authentic, especially given that the episode was written by the show’s non-Taiwanese creator and showrunner, Nahnatchka Khan, who is Iranian American. I never thought I’d see EVA Air, Taiwan’s main airline, on a prime-time ABC sitcom. The same goes for the Grand Hotel of Taipei, which has hosted American presidents and was where the Democratic Progressive Party—one of the country’s two major parties—was founded. I found myself anticipating a cameo from Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest building, until I realized that the skyscraper wouldn’t be open for nearly another decade after the events of the episode.

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These moments aren’t notable just because they contribute to a sense of realistic immersion. They also exemplify what I suspect has been the show’s long-standing commitment to directly catering to Asian, and even more specifically Taiwanese, audiences. Many scenes in the show are funny to everyone, yes, but they’ll resonate more deeply with viewers who share a cultural knowledge and background with the show’s characters.

For instance, Emery’s mosquito-attracting “sweet blood,” a phrase that my family has actually used, had me flashing back to the time I was stricken with mosquito bites on my own trip to Taiwan. They got so bad that a Chinese medicine doctor had to prescribe me a dark brown seed-based paste because no Western medicines would work. (“That kid with Moskito bite was just like you haha,” my mother texted me just after the episode aired.) And I laughed out loud when Eddie (Hudson Yang) reacted excitedly to the mention of a nearby McDonald’s, as I remembered my own frequent visits to the omnipresent fast-food chain in order to get a taste of home. More seriously, watching Evan experience the horrors and rigors of the Taiwanese education system through his cousin mirrors my own realization that even the most fundamental of American luxuries, like a summer vacation, are privileges not afforded to most of my kin.

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All these references are seamlessly woven into some of the episode’s most poignant scenes. Fresh Off the Boat is clearly a sitcom, but “Coming From America,” while still mostly light-hearted, insightfully addresses themes and questions that are central to the immigrant experience: belonging, placelessness, pressure to succeed, dual identities, among others.

The episode’s central conflict involves Louis and Jessica seeing how great life has turned out for Gene and contemplating abandoning their American lives and ambitions. (“We’re the white people of here!” Louis exclaims at one point.) But by the end of the episode, the Huangs come to believe that they’re just as successful as Gene simply because they’ve accomplished the huge task of making a new life for themselves in America. This is a significant realization, despite the quickness with which it arrives for the Huangs.

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Realistic pop cultural depictions of all of this are notably rare. And unlike, say, The Joy Luck Club or The Kite Runner, Fresh Off the Boat doesn’t frame the trip to Taiwan in tragic terms—there are no reunions with long-lost siblings, no scores to settle with the Taliban. Rather, the show uses humor and outlandish situations to do what good family sitcoms are supposed to do: Depict a normal family navigating the trials and tribulations of American life and identity. Watching it, I felt full of pride for my Taiwanese American identity and of nostalgia for Taiwan.

After the episode, I texted my mom, usually a critic of the show, to ask what she thought of it. “Very funny,” she responded. The part she connected with the most? At the wedding, Jessica laments that she wants a bagel, even though she didn’t think that she liked bagels. My mom wrote: “Just like me.”

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